Juan Montoya, who set the fastest qualifying lap in F1 history twelve months ago, set himself up for a third successive pole position at the Italian Grand Prix by beating off the challenge of Ferrari in front of the tifosi at Monza.

Running second on the road, in deference to his championship position, the Colombian made short work of Michael Schumacher's bogey time and then held off all-comers to take the prime position for Saturday's grid-setting shoot-out.

The Williams-BMW was faster in all areas than Schumacher's Ferrari - which had had to run on a slightly dirty track following the action between F1 sessions - and took full advantage of the German's slightly circumspect effort by slicing half a second from the benchmark. An increase in temperature between free practice and the qualifying session also no doubt helped Montoya's new Michelins, which continued to prove themselves as competitive as their predecessors.

Schumacher did not even end up second in the session, his slightly cautious approach to a leaf and dust-strewn track costing him another spot as he lapped half a second slower than he had in free practice. Ferrari would be represented on the provisional front row, however, as team-mate Rubens Barrichello made full use of his sixth starting spot to push Montoya's mark all the way to the line.

The Brazilian was attacking from the start, trying to give the tifosi something to cheer and the Michelin runners something to think about, and was ahead of his Colombian friend and rival through the opening sector. Still close in S2, Barrichello then found himself dropping vital fractions between the Variante Ascari and the finish line, eventually winding up 0.128secs behind Montoya's 1min 20.656secs best.

Behind the two Ferraris, the battle for best of the rest looked to be an interesting scrap between the remaining Michelin runners and, perhaps, would have been resolved in favour of the second Williams had Ralf Schumacher not made a mess of the opening chicane. Approaching too fast to take the sharp right-hand opening part, the German short-cut the obstacle and, despite going on to claim what was then the third-best time - behind Montoya and his brother - duly had his effort scrubbed from the records, dropping him to the tail of the field.

Into the German's place came Cristiano da Matta, not necessarily many people's choice for the 'best of the rest' tag but certainly at home on the quick Italian layout.Running twelfth on the road, the Brazilian was even impudent enough to go eight-thousandths quicker than Montoya through the opening sector, but fell away thereafter to come in 1.1secs adrift. While he may have been disappointed by the margin, however, da Matta will have been encouraged to see his speed trap figures matching that of the provisional pole-sitter.

If splitting the Toyota from third place Schumacher was an easy enough job, the battle for fifth was complicated when Mark Webber recorded an identical time to Kimi Raikkonen. Although the Finn lost time in sectors one and two, he managed to hold onto a top five place while others after him made a mess of their efforts, but could not shake off Webber, who put in a clean to match the McLaren's mark to the thousandth. Only Raikkonen's earlier starting slot ensured him of the later run on Saturday.

Both Webber and da Matta will have been happy to have emerged from the session ahead of the two Renaults, the Australian even more so after being out-paced by both Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso in the early morning test session. On this occasion, however, the regie's enduring lack of horsepower when compared to the likes of Cosworth, Toyota, BMW and Ferrari showed and, although there wasn't much in it on times, Trulli and Alonso could do no better than seventh and eighth respectively.

Bridgestone was not left to rely entirely on Ferrari to gain top ten spots in the session, however. As it had in free practice, the Japanese giant managed to squeeze one more car into the top half of the order and, this time, it was Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Sauber. Somehow, for he had an increasingly ragged lap, the German managed to combine all his wide lines and dusty moments into the ninth best effort of the afternoon, lapping just a tenth shy of Alonso and more than the same in front of Olivier Panis. If anything, the French veteran had a more untidy run than his German counterpart and couldn't make the time stick at then end.

Jenson Button, who had been Bridgestone's third man in the morning, took eleventh place after making a slight hash of the opening chicane and then losing time in the final third of the lap. Like BAR-Honda team-mate, the Briton simply did not string a good run together, but at least ended up two places and four-tenths further up the order.

The two white cars were split by the second Sauber of Nick Heidfeld, which appeared to be on for a possible top ten spot until the young German ran wide exiting the second Lesmo. Without a confirmed drive for 2004, and like several of his peers in the same position, Heidfeld was probably guilty of overdriving. Justin Wilson and rookie Nicolas Kiesa, both equally anxious to impress in the final three races of the season, were similarly afflicted, with the Briton making errors throughout his 15th place lap, and the Dane continuing his ragged start to the day by lapping slowest of all those who finished with a legal time.

If Wilson, Kiesa and Heidfeld were guilty of pushing too hard in an effort to get noticed, however, the same could not be said of David Coulthard, who simply had another poor qualifying lap. Running immediately after Barrichello had gone close to troubling Montoya, the Scot got both of the first two chicanes wrong and then spent the rest of his time on track attempting to make up ground. Once back in the pits, he could only sit and watch as he lost it, eventually ending up 14th overall.

Behind Wilson, Giancarlo Fisichella would have breathed a sigh of relief as stand-in team-mate Zsolt Baumgartner lost time in the final two sectors, eventually finishing one place and seven-tenths away from the Italian.

Both men avoided ending up in the final three places, after Baumgartner beat Kiesa's time and the second Minardi of Jos Verstappen was prevented from even taking to the track after its black box decided that 14-50 local time was the ideal time to malfunction. The Dutchman's misfortune also prevented Schumacher Jr from opening Saturday's session.

 

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